The Power of Foregrounding

The term foregrounding refers to the theory that stylistic features of literary texts de-automatize perception.

Czech theorist Jan Mukarovský argued that with everyday language, communication is the primary purpose and foregrounding structures are normally not involved. But in literature the purpose of foregrounding is to disrupt such everyday communication.

Thus in literature, the act of communication becomes secondary. The primary focus of the reader is on style.

Art exists, the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky remarked, so that:

"one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar," to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged." (1917/1965, p. 12)

Metaphor lets the reader see the likeness between apparently dissimilar and disconnected ideas. Some examples of metaphors as foregrounding:

“lake shining like a pile of dimes”   -Lisa Moore

“a pain in the knee sharp and bright as a small orange carrot” -Bill Gaston

Pablo Neruda describes his socks as “two long sharks of lapis shot with a golden thread”.

In poetic language foregrounding achieves maximum intensity to the extent of pushing communication into the background as the objective of expression and of being used for its own sake; it is not used in the services of communication, but in order to place in the foreground the act of expression, the act of speech itself.

This does not mean that literature has no communicative function, as Mukarovský is at pains to point out . Rather, foregrounding enables literature to present meanings with an intricacy and complexity that ordinary language does not normally allow.

Defamiliarization obliges the reader to slow down, allowing time for the feelings created by the alliterations and metaphors to emerge.

It evokes feeling in a way that makes it not merely incidental but actually a constructive part of the reading process. When perception has been deautomatized, a reader employs the feelings that have been evoked to find or to create a context in which the defamiliarized aspects of the story can be located. This is a central part of the constructive work required of the reader of a literary text.

Stylistic variations are thought to evoke feelings and prolong reading time. In four studies, foregrounded segments of the story were associated with increased reading times, greater strikingness ratings, and greater affect ratings in readers.

Canadian researcher David Miall finds evidence that foregrounding evokes a strong emotional response in readers and captures their attention. In the phrase “Miriam Anthony was unbeautiful” the adjective “unbeautiful” is an example of lexical deviation foregrounding.

ee Cummings work uses graphological deviation to attract reader attention:

“spoke joe to jack
leave her alone
she is not your gal”

Advertising also uses foregrounding to attract attention. Alternate spellings of familiar words “Glo” for Glow and “Krazy” for Crazy are meant to stand out against an otherwise normal background.

One condition for foregrounding is that it must be used in moderation. If a reader is confronted with too many technical or rare vocabulary words he/she will approach the text defensively.